Friday, April 14, 2017

Sailing the Quang Yen Junk

Written in Hanoi, on the 14th of April 2017
After the funeral ceremonies and lunch on the 10th, Mr. Chan organized a scratch crew to take out the boat.  He'd promised to take me himself a month before, but the funeral made large demands on his time, and that just wasn't going to work.  However he has been effectively training his friends and workmen to handle the boat (none of them had sailed one before this one was launched in December) and we had a perfectly competent skipper and one of Mr. Chan's older sons (he has four to choose from), so we had a crew.  The archaeologist who had started and financed this whole project, Dr. Nguyen Viet, likewise had intended to sail with us when we talked about it last month, but he has been ill for three weeks, something that makes him cough a lot and not sleep much, so I got his whole staff instead, his driver (a gentleman whose name I never learned), and a young lady who is his  housekeeper, videographer, IT person, document manager and cook. . .all in one. . .Miss Linh. .  . who also filled in as the sort-of translator for the day.  On the way from lunch to the boat,  we all stopped in the big house for another round of drinking tea and I almost derailed the whole thing.  I asked if we could perhaps take a mtor boat as well, so that I could photograph the sailing junk operation from on deck. . .then switch over to the separate motor boat in order to photograph the sailboat from a distance. . .and we ran out of people.  That, however, is what telephones are for, and with three shipyard people trying at once we soon had an additional deckhand available and we were off.

Well.  We got as far as the boat and the younger, more agile people got on board by walking down an amazingly narrow and bouncy plank.  I, and two other sensible people, stood on the bank and stared at the wet water under the plank (and the slippery black mud uphill from it).  But at last I gathered my courage all together in one place, found a nice piece of bamboo lying around to use for a cane of sorts (anything to steady my wobbly legs) and with a healthy young hand to grab at about the halfway point, I got aboard.  That got the rest of the crew motivated (or maybe they'd just been politely waiting for me) and shortly we were all on board, including a gentleman even older than I (I think) who'd joined at the last second.  Meanwhile the chase boat (with two young, agile, healthy people on board) had gotten away from the moorage and was waiting for us out in the river.

Let me stop and set the scene for you.  This is a lowland bit of river at the downstream end of a significant delta, so not only is the bank muddy, so is the bottom, at least near shore.  The boatyard sits at the top of a dredged cut that runs right back into the shore a hundred yards or more with the marine railway that is the yard's lifeline into the river at the head of the cut.  The sailboat is moored against the bank, fairly close to the main stem of the river and her head is already lying offshore. As we leave the slip, the river is flowing by (gently, but flowing) from left to right, downstream.  It's a tidal river, with a range of at least three or four feet from what I saw, so it may actually flow upstream on a big flood tide, but this trip the water was close to low tide and the ebb was going the right direction, downstream.  There's a grand new concrete highway bridge downstream less than a kilometer from the moorage, not open to traffic yet, but almost.  The sailboat can pass under its spans at least near the top of the arches, probably at any tide. The river is an active waterway, with tugs, barges, powered barges and small ships all running up and down river.  It's about ten kilometers to Halong Bay and the ocean, but we didn't get that far.  As far as I saw this trip, the wind blows upstream, producing an ideal sailboat opportunity.  Going upwind toward the sea you have the current with you, and fighting the current back upstream you have the wind free.  Add in the various combinations of ebb and flood and a catty sailor can get up and down the river just fine, though he may sometimes have to wait for the tide to change, but that's what they made anchors for.

This boat is not a replica, not a tall ship with a modern engine room below decks.  Rather, she's just another working sailing fishboat from thirty years ago (or fifty or a hundred years, they were the same at least that long).  She's built as though a fisherman and his family would take her straight away to start filling her with fish, making a living, and living aboard.  She was not built with stainless steel hardware and modern fittings but black and galvanized iron.  Most of what makes her work is hand crafted wood, and her masts are held up by simple single strand galvanized wire, doubled for adequate strength, and tightened by the same hook-and-eye turnbuckles you see in any heavy hardware store here.  She has no motor, just her sails, oars, and push poles to get around and an anchor to let her hang on to what she's got when things go against her. The mud. . .well, it's very fine grained, very dark gray, or maybe black and very soft near the surface, stiffening a little when you lean on the push pole. . .and it will, with the right attitude on your part, let you have the push pole back if you don't wait too long to ask.  It will also mark sails and deck with artistic splotches of. . .oh, never mind, just pay attention when you're waving the muddy end of your push pole around.

The foresail, the volunteer deckhand, the pole and the mud.

The skipper aft and the deckhand forward pushed her out into the river with the long bamboo push poles, with the wind from our right hand side, setting us toward the bank of the dredged waterway on the left.  We slid out easily though and once clear of the cut the river carried us slowly away downstream into the breeze.  It was blowing around 8 knots, a pleasant light breeze, but, as it turns out, lots to move the junk, she has an ample rig.  Clear of the dredge cut and into the river a short ways, the deckhand put his shoulder under the lifting bar of the daggerboard, reached down with one hand and pulled the iron bar that pins the board up. . .but he didn't lower the heavy board all the way, pinned it off again about half way down.

One of the glories of the junk rig is it can be readily handled by a small crew, and in this case our single deckhand set both sails in a matter of just a very few minutes.  The halyards are four parted (that is, they use a block and tackle to amplify the strength of the man pulling on the rope. . .he has to pull four times as much rope in to make anything move, but he makes it move four times stronger.  The sails are big and spread out with bamboo battens nearly as thick as my wrist, eight of them, as well as luff parrels to keep the sail against the mast and diagonal luff chains to keep the leading edge of the sail in line.  It's a lot of weight and the deckhand puts his strength and weight into the hoist--he gets three or four feet of line with every heave and up, up she rises about a foot at a time.  And immediately the boat comes to life.  She doesn't lurch and lean heavily in this breeze, just leans over a little and begins slipping easily through the water, up wind. . .and downstream toward the sea.
The deckhand, the mainsail, the four part tackle, and lots of line to heave in.

I stayed on board for a number of tacks, under the bridge and off down the river.  The skipper tended the main sheet from his post at the tiller.  That required that he let go of the tiller and leave it hard over as we turned across the wind to tack, but she seemed very even tempered and continued to swing around while he loosened up the tail end of the main sheet (the line that actually harnesses the wind power to the boat) and, while the sail was asleep, waiting for the wind to come onto the other side, he shifted the sheet to the other side of the stern and cleated it off.  Not on a cleat, but rather in and around a simple notch in a heavy timber bolted down on deck as far back on the boat as there was any boat (and it was barely, or not quite, far enough back for everything to clear).  Meanwhile, the deckhand, on the foredeck easily shifted the foresail sheet from one side to the other, cleated it off to a sort of bollard arrangement, really just an iron rod driven through a frame head, just ahead of the cabin front on each side. . .he waited for the sail to fill away on the new tack, and adjusted it to suit the course and wind and, since we were short tacking down the river, stood by ready to go around again.  There was no fuss or fury.  Nobody shouted orders.  There was a quiet conversation going on, but they might have been discussing anything else and probably were.  The tame good manners of the junk rig are amazing.  A comparably sized modern sailboat sail would have had to comment about tacking, fluttering and shaking its stiff sail cloth and perhaps banging the boom around as it came through the wind.  The junk rig, with its battens holding the sail stretched out and partially balanced (that is, with some of the sail actually ahead of the mast) makes the maneuver very quietly and you're shortly going the other way.
Cleating off the fore sheet.  That's a stout frame head that runs all down the side of the vessel, and a simple iron bar driven through it. . .simple and strong, but demands a certain quickness and skill from the deckhand.

Now and again we tacked without using the whole width of the river, getting out of the way of the heavy shipping that was trading up and down river. . .understanding that here, at least, steam does not give way to sail.  We keep out of their way and are happy to do so.   With a couple of long tacks ahead of us the skipper gave me the helm and I got my first trial of a junk rigged sail boat.  It's interesting, unlike a typical western sail, the junk begins to luff (to lose the drive from its sail when you point to close into the wind) one panel at a time, so if you are squeezing her up wind too hard, you'll first see the topmost panel start to flutter, while the rest of the sail is still pulling. . .but if you don't correct it soon enough and let her off the wind a bit you'll soon stall the second panel and then the third and shortly you'll kill her way altogether.  I wasn't quite that rough on her though and kept her moving pretty well.  She has a fair amount of weather helm the way she's set up now.   That is, you have to hold her firmly to keep her from turning up into the wind like a weather vane, but a bit of that is a good thing and if you wanted to fuss around a bit, there are a lot of adjustments built into her rig. . .I think it would be easy to make her very gentle to steer indeed.  She comes about very nicely, not snappish like a racing dinghy, more like a renaissance dancer, pivoting politely on her daggerboard, and doesn't fight you at all. . .in fact, you have to lean on the tiller (the rudder control) a little bit to straighten her out when she's finished her turn.  She loses very little speed in the turn, just continuing on her way.  With a full load of fish, food, water and cooking fuel on board, not to mention the wife and a child or two and a big pile of net, it's easy to imagine her carrying her way a long ways once she's moving.
Under the bridge. . .lots of room

The skipper at the helm.  The rudder can be hoisted up out of its slot entirely, or part way, but can only be used when it's down like this. . .well under the boat.

Miss Linh in the meantime was photographing from the chase boat, which was circling us like a slow old sheep dog. . .ahead and behind and on both sides.  The skippers agreed on a rendezvous and Mr. Chan's son nosed the chase boat up to the sailing vessel as gently as you could want.  I reached across, found something stout to grab and swung myself over onto the motorboat.  I never saw Miss Linh leave, just noticed she was on the other boat by the time I had my balance back.  She, by the way, was at the top of her form, happy as could be.  She'd photographed and video'd the construction of the boat all day long every day, running the automatic stationary camera, moving it around and changing its batteries and memory cards over and over, and crawling all over the growing boat with an iPad to make "portable" video.  But this was her first time to actually get on the boat and go for a sail.  After two solid months of construction, this was finally her payoff.

The chase boat, a squidder by trade, with Miss Linh busy on the foredeck with the camera.

And Chan's son was into the spirit of the thing as well, though whenever I saw him over the time I was there, he was smiling and cheerful. . .he took to the chaseboat role perfectly, working the fishing boat to put me into the best possible position to photograph the sailboat, considering the point of sail and the angle of wind and sun.  I ran my little camera as a video machine for a while, then shifted over to the big camera for stills.   After a few more upwind tacks that carried us a good ways on down river we turned the whole parade around and the sailing vessel could free up her sails, pick up her daggerboard a notch and march straight back up under the bridge, against the current, but with the wind free.  We were back to the moorage in short order and the sailing skipper took her quietly into the slip on the downwind side, carrying full sail until he was nearly up to her spot against the bank.  Then the deckhand dropped the foresail in a matter of seconds and the skipper pulled her around to lie, head against the bank, where they could easily pick up her head line.  With that done, the main came down and both sails were straightened up in minutes, while we in the chase boat looped around and tied up back out at the end of a string of anchored and rafted fishing boats that stretched out into the river.  By the time we'd backed down into position and tied up and I'd (very carefully) crossed from one fishboat to the next over and over until I finally reached solid ground from a small basket boat tied to a wooden walkway. . .by then, as I was saying, the sailing vessel was secured for the night and everyone was ashore.
Isn't she lovely.  She's not really finished yet, she will be painted later.  The traditional colors I think were black and black, or oiled brown above and black below.  The marine growth problem was addressed traditionally by beaching the boats several times a year and flaming their under sides to kill off the critters and weed.  Nowadays antifouling paint is the method of choice.

Miss Linh has found a small piece of net that had been set off the side of the boat. . .complete with two dead fish and a deceased shrimp.  An expressive face!

Nosing into the berth, the foresail already asleep in the lazyjacks.

My route ashore from the chase boat. . .across a dozen or more boats all rafted together and anchored up.  The last few were small baskets high on the mud.

Well, there was nothing to do but go have some tea and tell each other what fine fellows we were and what a great sailboat she is and what a dandy trip we'd had and so forth. Miss Linh shifted absolutely seamlessly from project videographer into perfect hostess, keeping the teapot full of hot water and the little teacups in front of us all full (hers included of course) all while trying to make sense of my English and translating the rest of the conversation for me in fits and starts (I was pushing her a little, but she rose to the occasion!).  And then, at a cue I didn't notice, the tea was finished and we went to find Mr. Chan and say our thank you's and good bye's and settle the time for the interview I'd been asking for tomorrow morning.  And all that got done, Mr. Chan named 8:00 in the morning for the interview (I had Mr. Hai's promise of availability to be the real translator (he's completely fluent in English and great fun to be around) and he is a really early riser as I knew from that visit a month ago, so I felt that 8:00 was likely to be fine. . .but more of that later).

The three of us, driver, maid of all work, and old American, piled back into Dr. Viet's car and headed back to town.  That's actually a delightful drive down an extremely narrow dike-top road, with many duck farms in the large square ponds that were once dry(ish) land and are now the levee itself.  The road is narrow enough, in fact, that the local authorities have installed a low concrete barrier that completely blocks the road for anything even a tiny bit wider than an SUV.  People approach it very precisely and inch through, listening for scraping noises.  Delivery trucks must be chosen for size, and a pair of SUV's meeting will slow to a crawl and inch past each other.  Just right for motorbikes of course.  In town we stopped at a small house next to a large pond (there are a lot of ponds in a delta setting) and bought $5 worth of a very interesting looking shrimp sort of a creature, still alive and flipping tails to protest the handling. . .and I still have no idea what they were, other than quite tasty.  H'mm.
It's good to eat, but what is it??

Miss Linh did not even go up into the museum when we got back, but carried her wriggly creatures over to the separate kitchen on one side and went to work.  Our driver and I went upstairs, and I was soon back to work reviewing construction video.  I'd spent a couple of hours early in the day getting my arms around the huge volume of recordings and, with only this one evening available to see what I could, I kept at the work absolutely without interruption until well after dark.  By the time Dr. Viet came to call me to supper I'd clicked through that huge accumulation of video, stopping now and then to study something that seemed a little different, or clearer than what I've managed to document myself over the years. . .a true treasure trove of minute detail (only a scientist would go to such lengths! and Miss Linh obviously was un-stoppable).  And speaking of Miss Linh, in the time I'd spent on the museum's computer she produced an absolutely grand five course dinner for the four of us.  Four of us. . .h'mm.  Our driver had gone home for the night, but Dr. Viet had been joined by a colleague from the Ministry of Culture for the City, a man who had been very helpful in the sailing junk project, and so we were four and it was a meal to remember.  With the funeral lunch, it made two absolutely great meals in a row and I was actually hungry enough by then to do something proper about it.  The strange shrimp-like creatures by the way, separated from their shells and cooked, have a little more texture than a shrimp tail. . .and taste slightly different. . .though really, different shrimp have different flavors too. . .anyway, dipped in a salty peppery sauce at one end they are very good food.
By then it was nearly nine, good byes and thanks were said and I reclaimed the horse from under the doubtful eyes of the watchdogs and left. So ended the first day with the sailing junk.  I was content and would have been perfectly happy if that were all, but there was more to come in the morning.

Mr. Hai and I had agreed to simply meet at the boatyard.  The weather was fine and it saved the difficulty of me figuring out my hotel's address so we could meet there.  As it turned out, Hai couldn't make the 0800 start time, but promised to be at the boatyard by 0830.  I went ahead and turned up when I'd said I would and found the household utterly changed.  The funeral things were all gone, the extra tables and chairs cleared away (rented, I'm sure, but in the event, it seems they just moved next door for their next chore).  It was quiet.  The two household dogs were back (two lazy old ladies, obviously long term mothers) and the black cat with the kinky tail and the banty rooster with his two hens were all patrolling the yard as usual.  There were no extra people around, it was a Monday and work was resuming in their world.  Mr. Chan confessed to being very tired from the past two days of funeral, but he's both a grand gentleman and a tough old bird and was ready to go ahead with the interview no matter.

We drank tea a while, waiting for Mr. Hai, and then a situation arose.  A TV crew arrived with the big camera (and the man behind it), a vigorous lady reporter, a sound man and a young lady to carry cords and tripods and so forth.  These people had done TV coverage for the construction of the boat, as it turns out, and were back for a post-launch follow up.  They beat Mr. Hai by at least five minutes, so we went with their program first.  So much for my early return to Hanoi.
Chan on camera.  Whether he's with his workmen (I saw hours and hours of video with him leading the crew) or with the TV people or explaining something to me, he speaks and acts like a long time professor.  He's a master of his trade and  fully aware of his place at the 11th generation of boat builders.  

On the other hand, the reporter wanted a boat ride and we got one. . .a pure bonus for me and well worth it.  This time Mr. Chan had the boat and one of his men had the foredeck.  We were seven on board, three from the station, Mr. Chan and his deckhand, Mr. Hai and me.  And there was lots of room, this is a big boat.  The wind had a little more weight in it this second day, and though we poled out easily enough, we were nonetheless set down against the edge of the channel before we got under way, and hard poling followed, getting off of the mud.  She came free though and in a few moments spread her wings and we were away.  I didn't have a chase boat this second day, so concentrated on the sailing and handling of the rig, trying to pick up all the details of the boat handling. With the better wind we could still comfortably carry full sail, though I noticed the TV reporter flinching now and then when the boat heeled over a bit.  The boat has an easy motion, with her wide flaring sides she will heel under pressure of the sail, but stiffens nicely as that side bears on the water and she just accelerates away.

It was a real pleasure to watch Mr. Chan handling the boat.  He was completely relaxed, but intent and focused. . .and he certainly didn't look at all like a tired old man.  However, it was a short ride and we tacked over to run back into the slip before we cleared the bridge.  Mr. Chan brought her into the slip from the far downwind edge of the dredge cut.  The deck hand got the foresail off of her in just seconds, all tidy and bundled in its lazy jacks, and Mr. Chan brought her through a 180 degree turn with the main sail still up and nosed her into the bank immediately next to an old grounded tank that serves as a sort of mooring dolphin, with a walkway to the beach.  It took a minute to get the main down after we had the headline on board, something had fouled the main halyard and the sail would go neither up nor down very far.  Nobody was very worried (except maybe me, a fouled halyard spoiled my day once years ago).  In the event, the two of them juggled the lines and shook the sail by its battens and whatever it was let go and we put her to bed.
Mr. Chan at the helm.  Barefoot and happy...

So at last Hai and I got to do our interview and I got a lot of detail and insight into the project directly from Mr. Chan, with the clarity that comes from having a solid translator instead of relying on pantomime and inadequate vocabulary.  This was time well spent. . .and took us right up to lunch time.  We four, that is, Chan and his Lady, Hai and I sat down to a day-after lunch, solid plain food, with some tasty left overs too.  A couple of grandkids came by for a bit to eat too and. . .and then that was over also, and, with a lot of thank you's and shaking of hands and big smiles, I took my leave for good and rode off down the dike road back to town.
And explaining how he lays out the planking to start the boat. . .fascinating.

Well, it was too late to want to ride to Hanoi, I'd be arriving in the worst of the evening traffic if all went well. . .and I'd be riding after dark if it didn't. . .neither one what I wanted just then.  Besides, there was still a lot to see around Quang Yen, and (as I now know), I had a lot of writing to do.  At the hotel nobody was offended that I was there past checkout time and were perfectly delighted when I said I'd spend another night.  So the horse and I played tourist with the rest of the fine daylight and spent the night in Quang Yen while the rainy weather system moved in.  Oh well.  That's what they made rubber boots and rain gear for.
I've actually been through Quang Yen any number of times on QL 10 without taking proper note, but this gray church right on the river's edge has been a landmark I've remembered for years.  I tried to photograph it once from a moving vehicle. . .no.

I was simply asking permission to park in a rather crowded spot outside a small shop, explained I'd only be a few minutes, I just wanted to photograph the church (I saw it was locked and was just going to try to get the outside). . .but no, I not only got to park, I was taken down the street to another door and introduced to a gentleman who had keys to the church, taken to a side door and let inside.

And then I photographed the exterior.

A canal near the boat yard. . .again, no doubt related to the levee construction in years past, though it's nowhere near enough volume to have built the whole levee.  Who knows?

Just a pair of quite nice homes in downtown Quang Yen

They're re-building the levee along this stretch of the river. . .that will be a new outfall and floodgate structure through the dike when it's finished.  The earthern cofferdam is just for construction.  No sheet piles!

I was just going to shoot the day care center when I noticed there was a Mom and Kid couple coming out. . .yes.

And yes, they'd stop and pose.  From that hat and trousers I'm pretty sure she's a little girl.  Anyway, I blew her a kiss as she rode away and she blew me one back.
These two trees are said to date to the time of the great battle with the Mongol navy nearby.  The victorious Vietnamese general, Tran Hung Dao (who has a street in every town in Viet Nam) prepared the battle site by setting a huge array of sharpened stakes into the river bed at low tide, then lured the Mongol fleet in at high tide, harassed them until the tide started to ebb, and skewered them all.  Fire and sword settled the matter thereafter.   These two trees were saplings then, and were the only trees left standing.  They've been protected ever since.

This kite, which I thought might have a four or five foot wingspan, was flying very calmly, not far outside my hotel room window late in the afternoon (remember, we'd had a good sailing wind).  The whole time there was a mechanical moaning sound, like some machine working in the distance.  H'mm.
Well.  There's your "mechanical sound"  A big array of whistles on the flight deck.

Oh my, it's four meters. . .thirteen feet across.  He flies it with 1/8" cord. . .some kite.

How do you carry a 13' wide kite home?  In the wind??  Carefully!
More kids. . .note the green jersey is very alive and well, active you might say.

Not to be left out she pedaled across the field to have a look.

But in the mandatory group photo, one of the kids fell asleep on the front of the bike.  How did he do that??

And in the morning we went home to Hanoi through misting rain and the edge of a thunderstorm and much much cooler air. . .a front came through late at night.  There's not much time left now, we'll start putting things away for another year.  There's a little more to report, perhaps I'll get it out to you before I leave.


  1. Great article and photos.

    It is rare to find photos of Junks designed for sail that are really being sailed!

    And here there is writing too!



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  4. Hi Ken,
    thanks for the detailed report on the Quang Yen junk.
    I plan to build a slightly smaller version for sailing here in California.
    Yes, that will be an ambitious project :-)
    As a start I wonder if you could get me in touch with Dr. Nguyen Viet? He might be the best person to start with. (correspondence in Vietnamese is ok too).

    BTW, where can I get more footage about this project? you mentioned various TV reports and Miss Linh documenting the project? I have seen your inspiring video:

    Greetings from California

  5. Hello Chris, I'm glad you recognize a big project when you see one coming. . .but it should be a lot of fun. I do have a little added footage of the boat sailing that I took at the same time I took the stills for the blog. I will find time to get that posted sometime soon. The TV footage apparently was not archived, the station did not keep it after broadcast. Sigh. Dr. Nguyen Viet's footage is on the hard drive of the computer in his Quang Yen museum, and would be a huge effort to edit to a short documentary. It is (almost) literally a minute to minute record from a fixed video camera and a great many short pieces by Ms. Linh and her iPad. So, to see every minute would take. . .er. . .a couple of months of 8 to 10 hour days for the basic record, plus a considerable time to sort through Ms. Linh's iPad work. I had only the one day and evening, so only clicked through at a furious rate, stopping to check a minute or so in every hour or two of video. So, there's not much more video quickly available. There will be an article in WoodenBoat magazine in May, which includes the major dimensions of the boat, as well as a few photos from Ms. Linh's construction photos. For contact information please write to me off-line at Good luck with your project!

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